October 18, 2006

The Beauty of the Blind

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Stephen Kuusisto’s recent memoir, Eavesdropping, begins with an astonishing question: “Why travel anywhere if you can’t see?” Kuusisto, a blind English professor and poet at Ohio State, was asked the question while delivering a talk at a nonprofit agency. While Kuusisto was unprepared for the question at the time, his slim book represents a thoughtful and stirring belated reply. The lyrical memoir adds volumes to the experience of being human and enriches the reader’s appreciation for the manifold aspects of sensory life.
Blindness evokes a constellation of clichés, though perhaps none so pernicious as the imagined emptiness of the blind person’s world. Shakespeare, for instance, wrote of “looking on darkness which the blind do see,” while Mark Twain joked that to identify with the blind, “get up some dark night on the wrong side of your bed when the house is on fire and try to find the door.” If you live near a university or college, at some point this semester you’ll likely see these limited ideas in practice: a train of students, surely full of good intentions, will lead partners in blindfolds on some simulation exercise — as though blindness were summed up and tied off with a handkerchief and a half-hour. Such activities, like the comments above show, link blindness to states of pity, panic and even madness. They undermine the blind way of life — what Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges called “one of the styles of living.” There is no beauty in the imagined nothingness of a black hole and no grace in time-stopped exercises of simulation.
Yet, as Borges observed, “the world of the blind is not the night that people imagine.” In Eavesdropping, Kuusisto makes clear how colorful, even visionary, the sensory field of the blind can be. Although damaged retinas left Kuusisto legally blind at birth, he still sees slivered fragments and patterns, “jumping apertures of sight … like a myopic, darting minnow.” Closer to visual nonsense than meaningful imagery, Kuusisto’s kaleidoscopic visual field compels him to practice the “art of listening,” an extraordinarily effortful, creative and refined practice of sight-seeing by ear. “Blind people are not casual eavesdroppers,” Kuusisto explains, “we have method … Even when I listen to Manhattan traffic I’m drawing my own pictures of New York — the streets are crowded with Russian ghosts and wheels that have broken loose from their carriages.”
The memoir departs from the conventions of traditional autobiography, neglecting to narrate a linear story of childhood and maturation. Instead, a series of poetic vignettes or, what he calls, “auditory postcards,” transmit the many wanderings Kuusisto makes by ear. For example, he tells of a journey to Venice, where Kuusisto gets lost, intentionally. “Something strange was happening to me,” Kuusisto exclaims, navigating piazzas, canales and campos with the compass of his ears. “I’d been drifting through the unfamiliar atmosphere with only the wind for a map. Was this what happened to sighted people as they wandered in churches and museums?” We’re not meant to answer Kuusisto’s question, only to appreciate the significance of its asking. The architecture, church frescoes and paintings of Venice are not missed without the use of his eyes; instead, Kuusisto registers their beauty in artful descriptions of Venetian sound.
Similar epiphanies on the sounds of cities and space make up the memoir’s second part, while the first details Kuusisto’s development in creative listening. Denied companionship as a child because of his physical difference, the young Kuusisto learns to commune with voices on the radio. He also finds symphonies in the natural world: “Alone in the woods, I could spend a whole hour listening to a single bird . . . The thrush produced point notes like strings played pizzicato on a violin. There was the whine of a mosquito, the slow vibrato of a bee.”
A long-playing record of Paradise Lost on loan from the Library of Congress delivers the fourteen-year-old Kuusisto his life’s calling: poetry. “I’d discovered, without knowing it, the difference between speaking and being. This is what listening is, true listening, the lonely but open mind … The soul’s path is in the ear — not in the mirror.” In poetry, Kuusisto realizes the means to express his love for rhythm and tone, and the memoir shares many lines from his favorite poets. Like listening, poetry requires patience and imagination for meaning to emerge; it also depends on a circle of interpreters, a community of participants committed to extending and deepening a poem’s reach. Likewise, we learn that Kuusisto’s “art of listening” involves the creativity and care of friends, who round out his world with the occasional description of visual tableaux. Rather than a solitary singer, for Kuusisto, the poet is immersed in a network of relationships, valuing dialogue and kinship more than individualist pursuits and triumphs. Kuusisto offers a literary triumph somewhat at odds with the form of a memoir. He discovers beauty in the conversations, sounds and ideas of people and things other than himself. Not only an issue of perception, the poetry of eavesdropping is also a practiced mode of creative reception, an openness to experience and the multiplicity of the world. To crib the words of Borges, Kuusisto’s style of living conveys so much more than what meets the eye.